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Tufts Christian Fellowship wavers in pursuit of exemption from non-discrimination policy

Chaplain indicates support for exemption on basis of religious integrity

Published: Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Updated: Wednesday, February 6, 2013 12:02

Nobody is sure what the Tufts Christian Fellowship’s next move is — not even the group itself.

Questions about the religious tenets and requirements for leadership of Tufts Christian Fellowship (TCF), a Tufts chapter of the national group InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, have kept the group in a state of limbo since the Tufts Community Union (TCU) Judiciary derecognized the group last semester.

The Judiciary ruled that clauses in the group’s governing documents requiring its leaders to strive to abide by a strict set of beliefs — called its Basis of Faith — excluded anyone whose beliefs fell outside these tenets from consideration for a leadership position and violated the nondiscrimination clause in the TCU Constitution.

The debate in October then moved to the Committee on Student Life, whose resulting ruling created a new policy that shifted the responsibility of judging TCF’s requirements for its leaders onto the Chaplaincy, a university department consisting of the chaplains for the four represented religious sects and currently headed by interim University Chaplain Patricia Budd Kepler. As a result of the CSL’s ruling, the Chaplaincy now has the ability to issue permission for “justified departure” from the university’s nondiscrimination policy on a religious basis — if the Chaplain, that is, decides such an exemption has a basis in religious doctrine.

It remains to be seen whether TCF will take the opportunity granted by the CSL to apply for exemption from the university’s nondiscrimination policy. If it does, the group will be required to provide more clarity in the coming weeks on how it interprets its own religious doctrine. In doing so the group would also become the guinea pigs of the CSL’s policy, which asserts, in part, that “it is reasonable to expect that leaders within individual [student religious groups] be exemplars of that particular religion.”

TCF leaders say they have yet to decide if the group will apply for “justified exemption.” Applying through the chaplaincy, for one, they will likely be faced with specific questions about leadership criteria that that the group says they simply don’t feel comfortable answering.

“We don’t have a codified policy about leadership,” TCF Vision and Planning Team member Jessica Laporte, a junior, said. “It is a discernment process, and that’s an important part of what we desire to maintain as a group, that it’s individualized, that it’s not a one-size-fits-all policy.”

If TCF does decide to go forward with the process of requesting religious exemption from the Chaplaincy, they may find an ally in Tufts’ Interim Chaplain, Reverend Patricia Kepler. Under the CSL’s new policy, she would head a team tasked with ensuring that any student religious group’s deviation from the Tufts anti-discrimination policy is accurately based on the doctrine of that group’s religion.

“I think that it’s common sense that the leaders of a religious group be in adherence of that faith tradition, if that’s what the group wants,” Kepler said from her office in Goddard Chapel last week.

Kepler, whose term as interim chaplain began in early 2012 after longtime chaplain David O’Leary left the Hill to lead a local Catholic parish, added that it is critical for any religious group to be upfront about what values it believes in. She praised TCF for its decision to hold firm against the Judiciary request that it remove the constitutional clause that potential leaders “support and advocate for the letter and spirit” of the group’s Basis of Faith.

“The reason they didn’t [remove the Basis of Faith], as far as I understand it, is because they have integrity. They said ‘we cannot honestly do that, this is who we are, this is what we believe’,” she said.

The Basis of Faith — initially authored by InterVarsity — includes a belief in the “entire trustworthiness and authority of the Bible,” and “justification by God’s grace to all who repent and put their faith in Jesus Christ alone for salvation,” among others.

Kepler said that she does not plan to press any student religious group seeking an exemption to specify its religious doctrine to the utmost detail. The Chaplaincy would not bring up issues of sexual ethical behavior, for example, unless students initiated specific concerns about that. The Chaplaincy, she said, would consider leadership requirements for faith-based positions at “face value.”

“I am not in a position, and I don’t think our other Chaplains are in a position, to require people to defend, expand on or interpret their faith tradition to somebody within the Chaplaincy,” she said. “For instance, if the Protestant group says ‘our leaders need to be Christian’, I’m not going to come back at them and say, ‘What do you mean by Christian?’…That could mean a lot of different things.”

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